Mosques outside of NYC

Most controversy in Green Bay revolves around the Packers, so it was a little surprising to see some tension after a group sought approval to develop a mosque in a shuttered bait and tackle shop just down the road from my house.

It probably would not be merited with front-page coverage before the proposed mosque in New York City exploded in national media. Of course, a little aldermen shouting match helped drum up some drama. But Green Bay serves as one example of many around the country where people are watching the specific case in New York City and applying it to their local communities. The debate in NYC includes its 9/11 history, a discussion over what is “sacred ground,” and generally a more diverse community, things that don’t tend to factor into these local debates.

Like the debate in Green Bay, similar ones are taking place around the country, as Laurie Goodstein wrote for The New York Times (and as Mollie discussed here). Earlier this week, Annie Gowen of the Washington Post filed a lengthy story from Murfreesboro, Tennessee, on the vitriol she’s seeing.

In Tennessee, three plans for new Islamic centers in the Nashville area–one of which was ultimately withdrawn–have provoked controversy and outbursts of ugliness. Members of one mosque discovered a delicately rendered Jerusalem cross spray-painted on the side of their building with the words “Muslims go home.”

The Islamic Center of Murfreesboro became a hot-button political issue during this month’s primary election, prompting failed Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron Ramsey to ask whether Islam was a “cult.”

Another candidate paid for a billboard high above Interstate 24 near Nashville that read: “Defeat Universal Jihad Now.”

Evangelist Pat Robertson weighed in Thursday, wondering on his television program whether a Muslim takeover of America was imminent and whether local officials could be bribed. (The mayor of the county where the Islamic Center is proposed called that idea “ridiculous.”)

This is creating a picture of the oppositions Muslims have faced, which is good, though quoting anonymous spray-painters, politicians, and someone (not in Tennessee) on television won’t get to the heart of how the locals really feel. Here, the reporter tries to explain to her Beltway readers what this town looks like.

Murfreesboro, about 30 miles southeast of Nashville, is a quiet town of 100,000 people, largely white conservative Christians. Residents take pride in the historic town square skirting an antebellum courthouse, the site of a famous Confederate raid during the Civil War. Patriotic banners line the lampposts. On the highway, there’s a Sonic drive-in every few miles. Gospel music radio stations are as numerous as those playing country music.

The 250 or so families — about 1,000 people — who worship at the existing Islamic Center come from around the globe and include doctors, car salesmen and students from nearby Middle Tennessee State University. Members of the mosque have raised about $600,000 to buy land and prepare the site for a 10,000-square-foot gathering place.
Plans for a school, pool and cemetery are expected to take years to complete.

That first paragraph seems so different compared to the second paragraph. If you’re reading this in Washington, D.C., the first group seems a bit wacko while the second group seems respectable. If the town is really full of white conservative Christians, it would have been appropriate to quote one of the local Christians ministers, right? What do they think about how a mosque might shape the community? How are they telling their congregants to respond?

Most of the quotes in the piece portray people opposing the mosque, including Kevin Fisher, an African American man who is leading the fight against the mosque.

Fisher said the protest was a “a beautiful example of our democracy at work.” But Lema Sbenaty, Saleh’s 19-year-old daughter and an MTSU student, didn’t see it that way.

“I don’t think I’ve ever experienced anything like that,” she said later. “You could see the hatred in their eyes.”

On Friday night, Lema and her mother, Fetoun, 47, a preschool teacher, gathered with about 200 others at the existing Islamic Center for iftar, the feasts held during the holy month of Ramadan to break the daily sunrise-to-sunset fasting.

Sbenaty’s quotes make it seem as though hatred is the only reason why people might have concerns. The Tennessean posted a story on how the mosque is under FBI radar, and it appears that Fisher’s concerns aren’t coming out of thin air, as he is portrayed earlier in the story.

Fisher spent his formative years in Buffalo, where a homegrown terrorist cell of Yemeni Americans was uncovered in 2002. Its presence in a place so familiar haunts Fisher to this day, he said. He is well aware that clerics at U.S. mosques have been accused of espousing radical views in the years before and after Sept. 11.

And he pointed out that one of the Murfreesboro mosque’s board members was suspended after the discovery of a MySpace page where he had posted Arabic poetry and a photo of the founder of the Islamic militant group Hamas. Leaders of the mosque said their internal investigation showed no wrongdoing, and they are cooperating with federal authorities looking into the matter.

The question the reporter is getting at here is: why are people concerned about the mosque. Then readers can discern whether the evidence allows for concern. Reporters should make extra efforts to look at both sides, why there are efforts to build a mosque and why there might be opposition.

For other reporters considering local coverage, it’s worth looking at the religious population in the local community and then finding the major religious leaders. How are religious leaders dealing with Muslim relations? In Murfreesboro, for instance, do the pastors make any mention in the sermons? In a town that hosts some big churches, surely one of those white conservative Christians believes in freedom of religion for everyone.

The first image is the Memphis Al-Rasool Mosque in Tennessee via Wikimedia Commons. The second image of one of those big churches in Murfreesboro is courtesy of Wiki.

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  • Ann

    I found the following to be very interesting:

    “Somebody call George Bush. His country needs him. Bad.”

    “For Bush, mainstream moderate Muslims were part of the “we.”

    After 9/11, Bush went to a mosque and declared that Islam was a religion of peace. He said forcefully that anyone who attacked Arab or Muslim Americans in some kind of twisted attempt at revenge for 9/11 would be met with the full force of American law.

    Note the all-important Us vs Them. Terrorists attacked America on 9/11 – not Muslims. Those terrorists twisted a religion of peace. Muslims are our neighbors and friends. Anyone who attacks neighbors and friends under the false premise that their faith or ethnicity links them to terrorists is our enemy.”

    http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/onfaith/eboo_patel/2010/08/we_need_george_bush.html

    President Obama cannot do the speech about the vitriol because of the considerable press about “Is Obama a Muslim,” which included this site. I saw FBI statistics that showed a huge increase of violence against Muslims after 9/11. After Bush’s speech the violence went down dramatically.

  • Jeffrey

    <i:That first paragraph seems so different compared to the second paragraph. If you’re reading this in Washington, D.C., the first group seems a bit wacko while the second group seems respectable

    Really? Because the WP was trying to paint a bigoted picture of white Murfeesboro or because Washingtonians are bigoted against white Christians?

    Since we are approaching the mosque discussion as if there is no bigotry anywhere, why does this become the default critique of the WP story? It seems reasonable that the Muslim community in a southern college town is going to be a lot more educated and international than the general public. Does pointing that out show bigotry by the WP? And does the description of bucolic Murfeesboro really elicit horror in Washington because everyone there is a bigot or disdains white, religious conservatives?

    As an thought experiment, it would be interesting to see the GR bloggers spend a week avoiding conclusions that bigotry or antiphathy towards white, religous conservatives existed and influenced coverage. No more “can you imagine if conservatives” or “can you imagine if George Bush” flourishes, no assumptions that newspapers and the general media are full of people who look down on (and are bigoted towards) white, religious conservatives.

    Now, I assume there is such antipathy and bigotry. But I also believe bigotry is fueling much of the mosque debate. But since bigotry is now off the table when discussing opposition to the mosque, why don’t we take bigotry off the table when discussing media coverage of white, religious conservatives for just a week. See how hard it is to make your point and, more importantly, see how hard it is to assume that there may be reasoned, thoughful rationeles on the other side.

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    Ann, history and links are great. Thanks for that.

    Jeffrey, I think you are spinning off in frustration over one sentence and not the general point. 11 bigots – that’s a lot of bigots. I am on no side here. As I said,

    Reporters should make extra efforts to look at both sides, why there are efforts to build a mosque and why there might be opposition.

    I don’t think I was suggesting that bigotry should be taken off the table when considering reasons why people oppose mosques. I said it was important to explore why people might have concerns. Then people can decide if that’s bigotry or not, right?

    Perhaps we are more sensitive to certain coverage, but if you see coverage where you think we need to address bigotry towards certain groups, please send it to me. I’d be happy to consider a post on it.

  • http://francisbeckwith.com Francis Beckwith

    The problem, as I see it, is that “bigotry” is in some sense in the eye of the beholder, and becomes more visible to the “victim” (the beholder) when the wider culture offers substantive rewards for being such a victim.

    This is not to say that there is not real bigotry. There certainly is, and it may be occurring in this instance. But if your conceptual grid is both incentivized and calibrated to detect bigotry, you will find it. Ironically, this posture is itself a form of bigotry, since it forces the “victim” to focus on those aspects of his adversary’s case that accentuate apparent bigotry while ignoring reasons that undercut that account.

    Why, for example, is not bigotry that is behind the unwillingness of most liberals to be for school vouchers that would allow parents to send their youngsters to private schools (mostly Christian ones)? Here is a case where the state is financially penalizing its citizens for exercising their religious beliefs. Given the history of such things as the Blaine Amendment, it is not unreasonable to postulate bigotry as the chief motivating factor behind this. But this story is not framed that way. It’s framed as Christian parents wanting to take public school monies to fund religious schools, which apparently violates the establishment clause. But why is that a correct way to frame it?

    In similar fashion, the Mosque cases could be easily framed to make the opponents of them seem sympathetic. Mosque supporters, like voucher supporters, could be presented as not respecting existing institutions that advance the common good (in the first instance, Western culture, and in the second, the glorious public school system). And instead of referring to them as “white Christians,” the writer could have called them “American traditionalists seeking to protect democratic values” and contrasting those values with “Sharia law” and so forth. I am not suggesting that this is a good thing. All that I am suggesting is that the template employed in these stories carry with it a cluster of assumptions that are themselves contested.

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    Francis, thanks for your comments, which make a lot of sense. I guess after I read the “white Christian” description, I expected her to seek out a “white Christian” leader/pastor. That’s more interesting to me (and original for her reporting) than using examples from people who are already vocal in the debate.

  • Jerry

    One of the problems in this class of story is separating different streams of issues. There’s no way that the average news story can explore all of these issues, but the reporter should at least be aware of the possibilities and seek to understand how any particular instantiation of a Mosque controversy can contain many different factors.

    One is fear of change, what is often labeled NIMBY. A story should specifically look for certain objections that are classic: noise, lower property values etc and compare the fears to the reality. This motive can apply to drug treatment half-way homes, Churches, Mosques and private buildings. Often people motivated by this issue will ignore real evidence from other situations showing that, for example, the proposed building has adequate parking, noise abatement rules and that property values have in fact gone up after a similar structure was built in other locations.

    Of course, not all objections are invalid and that epithet can get hurled when not appropriate. And sometimes the objection can be a mask for other motives. But it’s an possibility that should be explored.

    Then we get into the area of guilty until proven innocent which reminds me very strongly of the “red scares” of the 50′s and 60′s. In this case, we have people demanding that those wanting to build a mosque prove, ahead of time, that all their funding is pure, that they will teach only approved doctrine in their mosque and that they have no one who speaks in favor of any group that the US or Israel objects to. And in some cases this fear is built a logical fallacy, often hasty generalization based on a couple of examples that can be cited. When was the last time you read a story that really looked at the average American mosque?

    Then there’s a spoken or unspoken question of terrorism. Who is a terrorist and what they stand for can be complex. See, for example, the acts of the Sons of Liberty and the Irgun and especially the Stern Gang and note which who became a national leader after having been part of what some labeled a terrorist organization.

    Then in some cases we have classic prejudice which has been part of America from the beginning including treatment of the “savages” what lived here before “us”, anti-Irish, anti-Catholic, anti-Jew, anti-black, anti-Chinese and on and on. This is also a part of the picture.

    Then we have theology which gets into Quran burning and other attacks on Islam as per se being unGodly and unChristian. The 50′s and 60′s “war against Godless communism” has been replaced by a “war against anti-Christian Islam” in some minds.

  • http://goodintentionsbook.com Bob Smietana

    Hi Sarah:

    There’s a church right next door to the Murfreesboro mosque site, that’s supportive of the mosque.

    One reason the FBI has been concerned in that a mosque in Columbia, TN was burned down in Feb. 2008.

    Last night someone set the construction equipment on the mosque site on fire.

  • Passing By

    Here’s a reason people might oppose a mosque. DISCLAIMER: for my money, it’s more about a culture (Arab) using religion (Islam) in an immigrant setting. It’s entirely possible that other immigrant/religious groups have done the same. However, it does explain some local feelings in terms other than “bigotry”:

    Steve T.
    August 24, 2010
    I come from Staten Island, grew up there, know it well. The reason that the neighbors objected to the mosque in Staten Island is that in the neighborhood that the proposed mosque was to be built, Midland Beach, there aren’t any Muslims. Or if there are, they are well hidden. It’s a traditionally Italian/Irish blue-collar neighborhood where the wage-earners commute into Manhattan to keep the lights on for the elite. There are several large mosques on Staten Island, at least one with a minaret, in areas where Moslems actually live. The consensus was that this was a first step in driving out the locals and taking over the neighborhood.

    Preposterous? Bigoted? Well, many of the inhabitants of Staten Island have relocated from Brooklyn, many from the traditionally Italian neighborhood of Bay Ridge, which is now colloquially known as “BayRut.” First the mosque. Then the harrassment of the locals, with cars parked in front of driveways and other charming behavior. Then someone moves and sells to someone who attends the mosque. Then the harrassment spreads to the immediate neighbors. Lather, rinse, repeat.

    http://themcj.com/?p=14014#comments

  • Stoo

    Passing By: I’d want to see some sources regarding the alleged “harassment of the locals”. That’s the difference between a genuine problem and people just resenting a different culture moving in.

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    Thanks for some more good comments. Bob, I just read about that fire – that must complicate things even more. I know you’ve written about this even before the NYC mosque became a bigger news item. I’m curious whether you’ve seen that specific case impacting how people feel on the local level.

  • MJBubba

    This mosque story is also from Tennessee, about a three-hour drive from Murfreesboro:
    http://www.commercialappeal.com/news/2010/aug/28/common-threads/?partner=popular

  • Maureen

    Well, a whole lot of Southern (and other US) churches have been set on fire in the last few years, so arson against Southern (and other US) mosques would be a sign of acceptance and equality. At least by the sort of people who set things on fire.

  • Bern

    Maureen, maybe you didn’t mean the comment the way it came out but if anything what I could recalled and could find easily about southern churches being set on fire could be read a number of different ways . . .

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/national/longterm/churches/reaction.htm

    Anyhow, there’s a big different I hope between the sort of people who set things on fire and the sort of folks who don’t want that mosque (temple, school, group home, prison, shopping center, parking lot) in their back yard.

  • Passing By

    Stoo -

    I gave a quote from a person with direct knowledge of the situation. If you wish to discount it… well… ok…

    I do think it would be nice if an honest journalist would go interview the people in that neighborhood and report their actual motives, rather than shrieking “bigot” at every turn.

  • Passing By

    At least a couple of church arsonists are ex-church members: sort of stereotypically disaffected young men:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/22/us/22webchurch.html

  • Stoo

    Passing By

    Well yeah and it’s interesting reading but have you got more than a comment on a blog?

    Also I agree the emotive term bigot gets thrown around too readily. However who’s “shrieking” here? That sounds rather emotive and dismissive too. (see also “shrill”).

  • Passing By

    Stoo -

    Of course, your comment about a culture moving in echoed my own caveat. The only difference is that I give credit to first hand testimony, while you used the same caveat to dismiss that testimony.

    I suspect your bias is precisely what keeps journalists from writing anything but the party line that “Islam is a religion of peace”.

    Again, I think it’s fair to consider the culture (Arab in this case) separately from the religion.

  • Stoo

    Nope, I have plenty of concerns regarding Islam. Get my bias right at least! ;)